"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

From chaos comes order: Climate change and the case for hope

“Unless we stop fouling our nests, we may be a short term species.” - Margaret Atwood, after Rachel Carson

We’re blindly going where no-one has gone before.  Hurtling towards apocalyptic doom thanks to the industrial advances since the 18th century.  Advances that represent the double-edged sword we’ve wielded against the Earth – propelling the speed at which the rat race can consume and produce, in turn accelerating the ferocity with which we’ve carved up the planet.

From the cyclones sweeping the Western Pacific to the extreme water shortages facing California, it’s hard to ignore the warning signs.  And if we do? There’s no way back. The damage is irrevocable. 

Some 1,300 independent scientific experts from all over the globe including those involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assert that there’s more than a 90% probability that human activities over the past 250 years have warmed our planet.  Just recently, NASA reported that 2014 was the warmest year since records began in 1880. 

The fate of the Earth rests in our hands and it’s as urgent as it’s ever been. 

The fact that some 700 people gathered in the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building to address the fact gives some cause for hope.  They’d come to hear what Lord Anthony Giddens, Labour peer and renowned sociologist, had to say in his assessment of how far (or not) we’ve come since his 2008 research, as captured in The Politics of Climate Change.

That was then, this is now

“We’ve been tampering with forces which we have no way of controlling and unleashing them not only on future generations – this is happening here and now,” said Giddens. “There’s no parallel in human induced climate change in the whole of human civilisation.  No one has intervened in Nature as much as we have, to the point where we are changing Nature’s nature itself.”

With September’s New York summit looming on the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, coupled with the impending Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, the time is now to align public opinion with political agendas.

But given that the 2009 talks in Copenhagen were such a disaster, what cause is there for hope on the global stage, when as Giddens aptly put it, we’ve been prodding at the Earth as though it’s a wild beast and the reaction is sure to be violent?

Added to that, there is an increasing dislocation between the facts as presented by successive scientific reports, and prevailing public opinion.  Why? Because we’d rather be docile pigs in our shielded little pens than look over the fence and see the tornado approaching.  We do not believe what we cannot see, especially when it seems so far in the future that we cannot conceive of it.  Like nuclear warfare Giddens said, we’ll only know for sure when it’s too late. 

Except that the future, the one we’re merrily creating in our age of the Anthropocene, is not so distant. 

Days before Giddens’ rallying cry, the author and biologist Christian Schwagerl was in town, urging us to consider how we might mitigate the way in which our species has metabolised the planet - can we do better than leave a pile of rubbish? 

The story of the Anthropocene could be read as a period where humans failed to live up to the responsibility that comes with being the dominant force on Earth.  To date, our actions have dramatically altered 75% of the world’s land surface.  If we vanish tomorrow – and tomorrow will come sooner unless we heed the warnings – the mess we leave behind will scar the planet for another 50,000 years.

And therein lies the problem.  The immediacy and the rush of life in the digital age means our minds flit from one idea to another, from one desire to another, from one product to another, propelling the demise of us, the planet and everything on it.

Our short term culture has created an actual layer of man-made sediment in the ocean where the 8 million tons of plastic that cannot go anywhere else are enough to wrap the Earth in cling film. 

It’s a sign of the most dangerous self-delusion, as Schwagerl was at pains to point out; we’re in danger of heading blindly towards a future ruled by technology where there is no value placed on planetary life.

But that doesn’t have to be our story.

If we are prepared to place more value on life and Nature and less on “stuff”, our inventiveness could be our resolve.  The cause for optimism lies with grassroots movements agitating for change in the power structures of commerce and politics and global society.

According to Schwagerl, the Anthropocene gives a sense of an open future, an open debate, open source, open science: “This is a voyage we take together where our minds can collectively shape the Earth of the future.”

The cause for hope doesn’t lie in global agreements, there are too many conflicting power blocks.  It doesn’t lie with industry, where the profiteering motivations and disinformation pedalled by fossil fuel companies and commerce care little for our legacy. 

It lies with local activism and the transformative capabilities of technologies which can and have been used for collective betterment.  Take Mexico, which just over ten years ago was described as the most polluted city on Earth.  Following drastic measures to curb air pollution and auto emissions, birds no longer fall dead from the sky.  Take China, where the pressure for clean energy is being prioritised over economic growth.

And take Bristol, the UK’s first city to be designated European Green Capital, where 2015 is already propelling debate and action, with more to follow.

The arguments are convincing, the calls to action are compelling, and the challenges are all there to be taken.  Question is, are enough of us up to making change happen?

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